Abraham Lincoln: Portrait of a Crazy Badass
There's something about me that I don't like to talk about a whole lot. I may allude to it here or there, but I don't usually make a big deal out of it. I'm normally fairly private, but it's the middle of February and, I don't know, maybe I'm just caught up with the holiday spirit. Plus if I can't say it now, when can I say it?
I freaking love presidents.
As a result, and in honor of President's Day, I am thrilled to provide you with a closer look at one of the great men who served our country as King: Abraham Lincoln. Loved by many, hated by some, shot by one and feared by anyone under 6'4", Abraham Lincoln looked at the scarred and wounded terrain that was a divided America and covered it with a warm, bushy beard of protection. He stood atop Mount America in our toughest hour and proclaimed in a booming voice, "Liiiiincoooooooln!" And you know what? He was right.
He was also a whole bunch of other things that didn't get a lot of coverage in your history book. That's where I come in. Please enjoy Abraham Lincoln: Portrait of a Crazy Badass.
He Was a Mutant
Abraham Lincoln had long arms, which makes sense, as he is the tallest president we've had. What doesn't make sense is specifically how long they were. They reached a length that many Cracked writers named Daniel classified as "superfreakgiant." According to William DeGregorio's Complete Book of U.S. Presidents -- a book that I keep on my bedside table every single night1 -- Lincoln "had disproportionately long arms and legs," and might have even suffered from the Stretch Armstrong disease, more commonly known as Marfan Syndrome, though "suffer" is hardly an accurate word. You wouldn't say Wolverine suffered from Claw Pox or John Holmes suffered from Awesome Dick Disorder. It's not exactly suffering if your disease is "I have massive arms that I've made even stronger by repeatedly swinging an axe every day of my life."
If you rearrange the letters in Marfan, you get "Arm fan," which is appropriate, because this condition is basically your body's way of saying. "I am such a fan of arms that I decided to make you more arm than man." (This is probably not where the name came from.) Normally, those with Marfan Syndrome also suffer from heart problems, but it looks like Lincoln just got the "inhumanly giant arms" aspect of the disease. This, combined with a lifetime of muscle-enhancing chores like axe-swinging and house-building, made Lincoln a force to be reckoned with by anyone with a shorter reach, which is to say, everyone except Mr. Fantastic and some gorillas. Several historians claim that, in his final campaign speech, Lincoln demonstrated his superiority as a candidate by juggling Democratic opponent Stephen Douglass and three of his advisers four feet in the air. It is largely if not entirely responsible for his victory.
It's not just that his arms were superfreakgiant; they were incredibly strong. I know this next story is going to sound like bullshit, especially since it comes on the heels of a clearly photoshopped picture of Lincoln juggling four men, but I swear I didn't make it up. Several sources claim that, when Lincoln was in his 20s, they saw him carrying a box of stones weighing one thousand pounds, regularly. But not everyone agrees on that figure, of course.
Whether or not his strength had anything to do with his status as a Marfantastic Four sufferer is unclear. What we do know is is that Lincoln is fully capable of crushing any man who crosses him. We'd better just hope he's more of a lover than a fighter ...
He Was a Stone-Cold Badass
Well, there goes that.
When Lincoln was a teenager, he moved with his family to New Salem, Illinois, a town that was unofficially run by an unruly gang, called "the Clary Grove's Boys," whose only common bond was "physical strength and prowess." That's it. They were only friends because one of them noticed "Hey, we're all good at beating hell out of shit; let's make that 'our thing.' " They would routinely get drunk and beat people up at random and reportedly called themselves "regulators" and "were the terror of all who did not acknowledge their rule." Jack Armstrong, the leader of the Clary Grove's Boys, was the biggest in the gang and the toughest fighter in the area, and he wasn't shy about either fact. Lincoln (still brand new in town) was sick of hearing about how good of a fighter Armstrong was and bet Armstrong $10 that he could find someone who could beat him.
Armstrong accepted but, when fight day arrived, Lincoln's man never showed up. They waited and waited and, when Armstrong demanded that Lincoln forfeit and pay up, Lincoln decided that, rather than lose $10, he would fight the bastard himself. While Lincoln did have an advantage in both the height and giant-freak-arms departments, Armstrong had a lot more fighting experience under his belt and was the odds-on favorite.
The story of how the actual fight went down varies. According to New Salem resident Daniel Burner, Lincoln spent the fight tiring Armstrong out and then, when the moment was right, "swung his long leg over Armstrong's neck and made Armstrong run around holding him up in that position," which, yes, is pretty ideal placement for farting right into your opponent's mouth. Another source claims Lincoln simply grabbed Armstrong by the throat, lifted him right into the air and "shook him like a child" until he surrendered. Some even say that Lincoln was beating Armstrong so bad that the rest of the Clary Grove's Boys joined in, and Lincoln just laughed and laughed. And then beat their asses. What we do know is that, when an artist was asked to depict the fight, this is what he came up with:"Hi, I'm new in town and I'd like to military press the toughest punk among you until you all fear me. MAKE ME PRESIDENT!"
After the fight, Armstrong and the rest of the Boys decided to become best friends with Lincoln. That might seem crazy, but if your choices are "swallow your pride and play nice" or "constantly live in fear of the terrifying Stretch Armstrong Frankenstein," you'd probably choose the friend option, too. Luckily,Lincoln was loyal to his friends and very reasonable. It wasn't like he was crazy, or anything.
Wait, that last line sounded a hell of a lot like a weird segue ...
He Might Have Been Crazy
Most people know that Lincoln was an excellent speech-writer and, if they've read the entry directly above this one, they know that he was also a pretty good fighter. Few people know that, occasionally, Lincoln would combine those two things, and season them with a few hearty dashes of crazy.
In the 1830s, Lincoln was just beginning his political career and running for office in the New Salem assembly. It was important for him to present himself as a man worth following, a leader, to voters. At his very first speech, a small fight broke out in the crowd between a Lincoln supporter and some anti-Lincoln dude. This was an opportunity for Lincoln to show that he was cool-headed and just, a man who could moderate and resolve disputes, the kind of man you'd want representing you.
Lincoln left the podium mid-speech, went into the audience, grabbed one of the combatants by the throat and threw him 12 fucking feet.
Oh, and not just any fighter; it happened to be the one guy in the fight who didn't support Lincoln. This is what Lincoln did in his very first public speech ever.
He won that election, by the way. 277 to 23. It just goes to show you that core family values, a big heart and the unrivaled ability to shot-put anyone who disagrees with you are the most important qualities voters look for.
His Face Was Magic?
Most people, including the man himself, agree that Lincoln was a pretty ugly, even by horrifying, genetically impossible monster standards. Lincoln used to tell of a man who came up to him one day in Illinois offering a present. The present was a knife, and the man said, "I was given this for being the ugliest man in the world; it is now your trophy, until you find someone uglier than you," and Lincoln claims he held onto it all his life. [Sidebar: "Hand Knife to President" is NOT a game you should play today.] He had warts, scars, enormous ears and eyes that looked like they were constantly threatening to sink deep into his face, probably out of protest of his nine-inch nose. There hasn't been a single photograph of Lincoln that has ever showed his good side.
It turns out, that might be the problem. According to his private secretary, John Nicolay, photographs never could do Lincoln justice. Nicolay claimed that Lincoln's features were "too complex to be recorded accurately by photographers, painters or sculptors." He maintained that all art was "powerless before a face that moved through a thousand delicate gradations of line and contour, light and shade, sparkle of the eye and curve of the lip in the long gamut of expression from grave to gay, and back again from the rollicking jollity of laughter to that far-away look." You would think that this was just the ramblings of a creepily-obsessed sycophant, but a New York Herald reporter agrees with Nicolay's vampire-centric anti-photography theory, saying "I have never seen a picture of him that does anything like justice to the original ... he is a much better looking man than any of the pictures represent." And Horace White, the editor of the Chicago Tribune claimed that he was at one moment hideous and at another had eyes that sparkled with "a countenance that was wreathed in animation" and some even say describing his appearance was "beyond the power of words."
If you read a lot about Lincoln, like I do2, you'll find that all of the reports are like that. We think Lincoln is ugly, but that's only based on photographs which, apparently, are liars. Everyone is saying, "I thought he was gross, but it turns out he's OK ... wait, actually it turns out he's pretty handsome ... hold on, actually, he defies description and it is impossible for any mortal man to accurately describe him and oh my God they should have sent a poet." And then they did send a poet, and it was Walt Freaking Whitman, and even he said, "Though hundreds of portraits have been made, by painters and photographers, I have never seen one yet that in my opinion deserved to be called a perfectly good likeness: nor do I believe there is really such a one in existence." It has been said that his appearance "baffles interpretation," leaving people to use non-physical descriptors when talking about him, like Gustave Koerner, who said Lincoln's "face is unfathomable." Unfathomable!
What does any of this mean? I have no idea, just that Lincoln is apparently a master of face-trickery, which so far puts his mutant-tally at, what, three now? Mr. Fantastic arms, Hulk strength and wizard-face, right?
We made this guy president??
Daniel O'Brien has a whole lot more to say about presidents, and it all can be found in You Might Be a Zombie, now a New York Times Best Seller!